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According to Epicurus (1966a,b), neither death, nor anything that occurs later, can harm those who die, because people who die are not made to suffer as a result of either. In response, many philosophers (e.g., Nagel 1970, Feinberg 1984, and Pitcher 1984) have argued that Epicurus is wrong on both counts. They have defended the mortem thesis: death may harm those who die. They have also defended the post-mortem thesis: posthumous events may harm people who die. Their arguments for this joint view are by now quite familiar, and there is no need to rehearse them here (for a summary, see Luper 2002). Instead, our topic is a third position, which carves out intermediate ground between the other two. The intermediate view takes the mortem thesis for granted, like the critics of Epicurus, but rejects the post-mortem thesis, like Epicurus himself. For Epicurus’ project—the attainment of ataraxia, or equanimity—the intermediate view is almost useless (we are not tranquil if we regard death as a tragedy whose peculiarity is that it frees us from the possibility of any further misfortune); however, it is far more plausible than Epicurus’ own position since it avoids his absurd claim that death cannot harm us, while retaining his view that events occurring while we are dead and gone cannot harm us. According to the proponent of the intermediate view, when we understand the harm death inflicts, we must reject the idea that events following death can be bad for us. The damage death itself does is so severe that people are not subject to harm by any subsequent events. Thus the intermediate view rests on the mortem thesis 2 together with the immunity thesis: death leaves its victims immune from posthumous harm.

The immunity thesis is quite plausible. Truly, once death is through with us, very little can be bad for us. However, this essay will show that the immunity thesis faces significant objections. Hence even though the mortem thesis is correct, the intermediate thesis is questionable. The point is important, because of the consequences of the view that posthumous events are harmless to us. One such consequence is that it is irrational to care how our reputations or personal projects will fare after we die. It also follows that keeping our bodies alive after our brains enter a persistent vegetative state is not beneficial to us. Moreover, there is a strong prima facie case for the view that others should feel free to set aside any instructions we might leave behind concerning the disposition of our material possessions.


University of Illinois Press

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American Philosophical Quarterly

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Philosophy Commons